Not just another vampire show, FX’s The Strain has a great deal of creative pedigree attached to it: writing, acting, but also historical significance. Originally conceptualized as a television show, it went through various format changes, including novelization and a comic from Dark Horse Comics before it found its way to the small screen. Of course, with a creative genius like Guillermo Del Toro behind it, it has continued to horrify and keep its audience in suspense for three successful seasons.
PopMythology was able to catch up with Cas Anvar, who plays Sanjay Desai on the show, a collaborator with the fearful Strigoi vampire overlords, and who provided us with his insight into just why we should be scared of The Strain this season.
“Sanjay Desai was based on real-life collaborators from World War II,” Cas explained. “These are people the writers of the show interviewed fifty years later; 80, 90-year-old people at the end of their lives about collaborating with the Nazis and setting up concentration camps, and they confronted them with these things that they had done. The really horrific thing was that none of them were unwilling to admit what they did. They didn’t think they had done anything wrong and were in these incredible states of denial. That’s dark.”
Cas plays Sanjay Desai in The Strain. If you haven’t had a chance to catch the show, essentially the world has been over-run by vampiric creatures known as the Strigoi, yet instead of mindless and frenzied feeding, the Strigoi have created an intelligent, infrastructural approach to controlling the world by means of occupation-like tactics. Along with this is the feared “Partnership” in which human accomplices collaborate with the Strigoi to police, govern and manage humanity. One of these ways is a birthing facility designed to accelerate human population growth of which Sanjay Desai is the director.
“Sanjay is one of these people. He is willing to do whatever it takes to survive, even if he has to betray his own people. If you ask him, though, he’d kinda see himself as a hero. He doesn’t wake up in the morning and thinks of himself as a despicable human being. He rationalizes his behaviour that he is actually making the world a better place. He has no room in his heart for compassion. He’s a survivalist and he rationalizes everything he does in order to survive.”
That’s a frightening concept. A human being who is able to rationalize the horror around him and devolve it into something a part of everyday life and to his own benefit is a person who has lost their humanity.
“It’s very scary,” Cas agreed. “You know, it was a very dark time when I was doing this character and I was taking it home with me, and uh, I had to do anything to shake Sanjay out of my head and get rid of him. You have to commit to him; he’s not a ranter or master villain; he doesn’t wake up in the morning and take pride in his villainy. He honestly is a guy who says ‘I’m going to take care of my family, and I’m going to try and do as much good as I can’, but his lines of morality are so skewed – and that’s a willful act. He lies to himself and playing this character is such a razor’s edge that it becomes difficult to divest yourself of that at the end of the day. He is a such a manipulative person who lives in a dark place.”
Like so many other skilled Sci-Fi actors, Cas has a theatrical background. Theatrical actors have extensive and detailed concepts of their characters with vivid backstories. In Cas’s mind, Sanjay’s backstory is like that.
“I had to do that to prepare for the character. He clearly is somebody who responds to authority. His relationship with Eichorst … well, Sanjay desperately needs Eichorst’s approval. Sanjay has an agenda because he is fascinated by Eichorst’s power. Power is survival to Sanjay and Sanjay is a survivalist. He sees Eichorst’s physical prowess as appealing and while he doesn’t reveal too much to Sanjay, it is constantly on Sanjay’s mind. If he impresses them enough, does his job good enough, it is the ultimate in protection if he becomes that powerful. He grew up in an environment where sympathy, empathy and compassion were not rewarded. Whatever his relationship was with his parents, it is emulated by how he treats everyone around him. You’re looking at Sanjay’s father when you look at the way he treats everyone around him – his wife, his co-workers. That’s Sanjay.”
Ironically, Eichorst is not just any Strigoi; the right-hand man to the Master, he is a former Nazi concentration camp commandant. Only The Strain could take a human monster and make him more terrifying, but that is the secret of this show: humans can be more terrifying than any monster imagined, but there is no-one who understands the concept of monstrosity better than Guillermo Del Toro.
“Yeah, the Dark Peter Pan – the Dark Angel of Fantasy and Fairy Tale. Look at his stuff: from Pan’s Labyrinth to Hellboy, whatever he writes is like the original Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales. He tells these dark, painful stories but they’re incredibly rooted in morality of some kind. He doesn’t do anything that’s basic; he inspires deep, profound thought but he doesn’t pull any punches either. The Strain is a very dark perspective or interpretation of where this world can go.”
Cas went on to illustrate further sobering dimensions to Del Toro’s work:
“There are political ramifications to Guillermo’s work too. Basically, he puts it in your face, what can happen if you can allow yourself to be led like cattle. It’s happened in our history before. But back then, we didn’t have the benefit of history’s hindsight to say ‘never again’. Back in World War II, it was shameful, but they had no reference to compare to and just got sucked into the ideologies that were being professed. Those people were led naively and by the time they realized what was happening, it was too late and everything was in place. We don’t have that excuse now and it’s happening in front of our faces.”
There are definitely historical parallels to remember and Del Toro’s grasp of allegory allows us to take from his work messages that remind us about the important things in life that we need to be aware of as well. In fact, Science Fiction and Fantasy are perfect vehicles for delivering these types of messages. Scary as the may be, they are still important to remember.
Cas had some thoughts on this as well.
“The whole point of the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy is to tell stories that you could never tell because people don’t want to look at themselves that blatantly. They don’t want you to say, ‘Here, I’m in 2017, North America, and here’s a character that’s you.’ People get defensive and don’t want to look at that character and admit, ‘Yeah – that IS me.’ That’s not attractive. But if you put the story in space, 300 years from now, then it becomes a filter. You present the audience with themes that are familiar but in an environment, that’s far away from themselves that they can pretend that it isn’t them, and it’s easier for them to be affected by it. It’s like a parable told to teach you through the faults and mistakes of others.”
But it’s a team effort as well. Cas had nothing but acclaim for the cast of The Strain in that to properly deliver a level of fear that’s not only just a sober reflection on the monstrosity in ourselves but a fearful one in that, it takes a dynamically talented cast.
“I got to work with Richard Sammel, who plays Eichorst – and that was a love-fest. We got along like two peas in a pod. We’re really good friends and he’s a theatre guy like me, so it’s like a military thing – we had war stories we could share. Theatre is a very gruelling experience so if it’s shared, you bond. In Season Four, it was exciting. I got to work with Corey, with Ruta, Kevin Durand – and Jonathan Hyde, who plays the Master! These are incredible actors who really bumped my game up. They motivate me to deliver a role that delivers intense scenes but because of their own intensity. I really couldn’t have had a better time.”
Finally, why should Sanjay scare us?
“Simple,” Cas answered. “He thinks he’s a good guy. Sanjay does not wake up and says I’m going to do horrible things. He wakes up and says, ‘People should be grateful because I’m making things easier.’ That’s what’s scary, and it isn’t just Sanjay – they should take that and look around them right now and say ‘Holy crap, there are a lot of Sanjays around and our world is being led by them.’ That’s what should really scare people.”
How many of those people are out there right now? Much like the historical allegories Cas mentioned earlier, the real fear of The Strain is that it should remind us of the ever-ready dangers that human beings are susceptible to. Add that intrinsic desire to simply think about yourself or those close to you and you have the ingredients of a world that hits us deep in the visceral part of our humanity.
Cas Anvar appears as Sanjay in the fourth season episode of The Strain that broadcasts this Sunday, Aug. 6. We really get a good look at Sanjay Desai and his performance should make us think twice about what is really scary in this world.
Because it’s not the monsters.